An Encounter With Death
by Hubert Collis
In early December 1990 I went to visit our doctor for a routine check-up. As he was passing his hands over my stomach he discovered a pulsating artery. He told me the walls were ballooning and at any time they might burst. If this happened I would be dead. At that time, I was in my 74th year. This did not worry me unduly as for some time I had strong indications that I would die in my 75th year.
I went to the hospital where the findings of my GP were confirmed. The surgeon told me it was a major operation but a fairly straightforward one. I had planned to go to London to spend Christmas with my children and I told him I still intended to do this. The surgeon agreed but reluctantly.
When my eldest daughter, Zara, heard about the operation she insisted that I did not travel, but instead she would come to stay with me. I got a letter from the hospital in Gloucester telling me the operation would be on December 26th, Boxing Day.
About a week before I was due to have the operation I felt very ill. I was sitting in my flat and I had an intense feeling of illness in my stomach. I knew I had to see a doctor as soon as possible so I made my way down to the office in Wisma Mulia. When I reached the office, I collapsed into a chair. I knew I was going to to die.
I had a vision of my life, not the incidents in it, but it’s nature, and I knew it was not mine, it was God’s and had been lent to me. It was shining, silver coloured, mercurial, and was hovering in front of my eyes. As it was going to be taken away from me l knew the only thing I could do was give it back to God. So I prayed saying, ‘I give my life back to you to do with what you will.’ As I said that it seemed that a funnel opened up inside me and through it I could see the Universe, and it was the most beautiful sight. If I was going there I was content. From that moment I began to recover. Within five minutes the doctor was with me. He took my temperature and my pulse and declared I was normal.
Yet I was convinced that I was going to die under the operation, and it did not worry me. My birthday was in March so I was nearly 75 anyway.
I felt that if I were going to die I must learn to appreciate this world to the full. Much of the time, I was not aware of what was going on around me. I saw it, but I did not taste it. In a way I was like a man coming to the end of a long sea voyage. I could see the shore distant and hazy. The storms were behind me, I had my luggage and the harbour was coming into sight.
I was thinking along these lines while on a bus to Gloucester. I looked up and saw God’s nature. It was in the countryside, the sky, the animals in the field, in the subtle colours, and in people’s faces. The world was slowly turning round and God was showing me different aspects of His nature.
The sun was bursting through a hole in the sky where wisps of cloud were curling up, lit with an ethereal quality of light and colour. If angels had swept through that hole I would not have been surprised. Below the fields were in shadow, and the cows unconscious of their importance sheltered by the hedges. The sun, shielded by the clouds was shining across the scene and its light could not reach the countryside, yet this shadowy scene had a significance. I felt that if it was not there, the sun would not have shone and the clouds would not have billowed up. They were part of the picture painted by God.
This scene which superficially was very ordinary, would not have caught my attention if I had not felt joy surging through rue. Then I reflected that it was necessary to love the world for it to have any meaning. Love gives sense to everything. As we approach death the importance of this becomes pronounced. Our love becomes more intense and when the time comes for us to leave the world, it is at its peak. Without this we cannot go on. The nature of maturity is to love intensely and then be able to reject what we love. If we can do that, other experiences are open to us which are beyond our understanding.
This completes my experiences prior to my operation. The last thing I remember is one of the Care Assistants running out of Wisma Mulia and throwing her arms round me and wishing me luck. Then I stepped into the car beside my daughter and we made our way to the hospital. I cannot remember entering it or any part of the operation. All this is wiped from my memory. My report on the events in the next few days has been gleaned from from my daughters Zara and Roseanne, the surgeons who performed the operation and my GP who was once a surgeon himself.
The surgeon ripped me open like a Scotch kipper from just below my heart to my groin. It was necessary to examine the whole length of the artery which led from the heart down to my legs. They expected to find ballooning in one part of the artery but they found that all of it was weak so all of it had to be removed and replaced by a plastic tube. What had started out as a major operation turned into a delicate one.
To carry out such an operation, the whole lower part of my body had to he paralysed to deaden the pain, anaesthetic on its own was not enough. Then my intestines were removed and my blood frozen. To do this, they had to stop my heart. I was told afterwards that it was stopped for an hour. Then the operation was performed, my insides returned to me and I was stitched up.
The operation was a success. Then I had a relapse. A ventilator was rammed down my throat to pump oxygen into my lungs which had collapsed. This went on for a week before the ventilator was removed. For those not familiar with a ventilator, it is a machine with two glass tubes which go into each lung while oxygen is pumped in. While this was going on drugs were being pumped into me to balance those which were already there.
My daughter Zara was allowed to see me. She told me she did not recognise me. My whole body and face had swollen to an enormous size, and there were tubes sticking out of me in all directions. I was unconscious. She put her hand on my heart and it felt like a block of ice. Then she held my hand and squeezed it and I returned her squeeze so she knew I was aware of her.
To appreciate what she did next it is necessary to know that Zara was in the last and most important year of her college. Every day of study was vital. The results at the end of the academic year would decide whether she would get her BA or not. Without hesitation she decided to stay with me until I was out of danger. I always knew she loved me but I never knew the depth of that love until I heard about her decision afterwards.
I remained in intensive care. I stopped using the ventilator after a week. After a further ten days I recovered consciousness. I did not know where I was or what had happened. I did not even know I had had an operation until I saw the scar.
I began to hallucinate. A woman kept coming to look at me. She probably was a ward sister hut she told me that she owned the hospital which was set up in opposition to the National Health. It all seemed very real to me.
It was very difficult for me to distinguish between what was real and what was not. Every night I heard men kick at the door demanding to be Jet in. Once one called out, ‘Believe me, I am an honest man. Please let me in.’ His request was ignored. The phone rang incessantly and I heard men threatening what they would do once they got in. Of course it never happened, it was an hallucination. It could not happen, the intensive care unit was on the first floor.
Another example of my hallucination was seeing Arabs come into the ward every evening after midnight to negotiate terms. I could hear every word they said but the result was always the same, they would not pay. The hospital wanted £450 a day, and all they were prepared to pay was £75. I became suspicious of what I was hearing and seeing when I realised the same scene was being repeated every night and I knew what the result would be because I had seen it before.
During the day I saw a man called Raoul whose plane had crashed during a bush fire in Australia. He kept on calling out to his friends who had died. One he kept on calling for was Patrick. My name before I changed it was Patrick. He called out with such longing, it was heartrending. Even now I do not know if he existed or not.
I saw a man whom I took to be an Arab having a blood transfusion. He was almost naked and well built. His skin was golden brown, more Nordic than Arabic. He asked if what he was seeing was pure blood. The doctor with him replied that the donor had sacrificed his blood for his brother, so it was pure. The man appeared content, rose from his bed and left the room.
These are a few instances of the hallucinations. There are many others. I had the feeling I was in hell and was seeing the pain of the recently dead. Before my operation I had been near Paradise, now I was seeing the other side.
Slowly my memory and my appetite came back, although I was still eating very little. Even now two months after the operation it is not back to normal. I have been told it will take 2 years for my digestive system to recover.
I am glad to say I have now stopped hallucinating, but I am left with a dilemma. If what I saw and heard did not exist, then how can I trust my eyes and my ears in normality? This world, it is claimed by the mystics, is an illusion. If that is so perhaps my whole life and what I see and hear is an illusion. Maybe the trees, the grass, the sky and everything else I am aware of does not exist. My hallucinations were very real. How do I know what are hallucinations and what is reality. Perhaps the only real thing was when I saw the universe.
The ventilator appears to have damaged my throat and, for the first time, I have experienced what it is like to be without the material force. It was horrible. I was like a cloud swirling round which had no power. My will remained but it had no instruments to carry out its wishes. This was demonstrated very clearly when I tried to get out of bed and fell flat on my face and had no power to get up. In the end they put a cage round my bed like a baby’s cot and that is exactly what I felt like, a new born babe.
I came very near to death. At one point the surgeon thought I was dead, but it was not God’s Will that I should die and that is the only reason I survived.
[Article re-published from SICA Book Writings © 1992, K. O’Sullivan]